Major Study Validates Telehealth for Chronic Conditions

The COVID-19 pandemic generated a variety of notable changes within the U.S healthcare industry. In the beginning, a significant portion of care was postponed due to the pressure hospitals were put under by large amounts of seriously ill patients with COVID-19. To combat this, the healthcare industry sought to provide healthcare through alternative methods. The result was an unprecedented expansion of the telehealth services industry. 

Since the large-scale use of telehealth services was a new concept, there were questions on the validity of the technology for care. Several of the previous large studies on the use of telehealth have been formed on the basis of Medicare data. Naturally, using Medicare data is advantageous for estimating utilization among Medicare beneficiraires. However, some behavioral economists have also underlined the significance of looking at commercially insured groups for a more comprehensive picture. JAMA NETWORK OPEN recently published an article validating the use of telehealth communication technologies as a medium for healthcare provision using alternative data.

The study consisted of 40.7 million U.S commercially insured adults who sought care via telehealth. The data was collected using claims files for commercial health plan members who used the commercial plan as their primary coverage. The study population was restricted to members who were continuously enrolled in the plans between July, 2019, and December 31, 2020 and were insured under employer-based, Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, and other private health insurance plans. The primary results of the study were in-person encounters per enrollee stratified by the attributes collected from enrollment files, practitioner claims, and community attributes related to the enrollee’s zip code. 14 days after the initial visits, the outcomes of care were evaluated. These included any follow-up visits, emergency department visits, and hospitalizations following the original telehealth or in-person visits.

The researchers found that within the 40.7 million individuals studied, telehealth accounted for a significant percentage of in-person visits at the peak of the pandemic and remained popular after the infection rates weigned. The use of telehealth services for the supervision of chronic conditions were comparable, or even more efficient, than in-person care when follow-up visits were examined. On the other hand, individuals who had an initial telehealth visit for acute conditions appeared to require additional follow-up from their physicians. Particularly for acute respiratory-related conditions, which may be the result of concerns over COVID-19 rather than concerns for other acute respiratory conditions.

The study is extremely important as it proves that telehealth communication technologies are sufficient in providing health care for individuals with chronic illness. The findings can act as patients, medical providers and policy makers who may be hesitant about the use of telehealth for healthcare.